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Pontifical Mission at 50: Rome

Pope John Paul II recognizes the Pontifical Mission as an “eloquent sign of international solidarity.”

prepared by CNEWA staff

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When the great 17th century Italian sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini completed the colonnade that, reaching out from either side of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, enfolds St. Peter’s Square, the Catholic Reformation was in full force. He designed the colonnade to resemble a pair of arms, as if the Church of Rome were embracing all those – Catholic or not – who approached the shrine built over the site of the death and burial of the first Bishop of Rome.

On 9 December staff members of the Pontifical Mission gathered in a cold and wet square sheltered by the embrace of the colonnade. Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Americans – Armenian, Latin, Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholics and Armenian, Coptic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox – Pontifical Mission staff all – approached the great doors of the basilica, carrying our prayers and concerns. There, the Holy See welcomed us in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the founding of its relief and development agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

At the Altar of the Chair, an explosion of marble, stone and bronze designed by Bernini to enshrine the traditional throne of St. Peter, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, celebrated a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving. Members of the Sistine Chapel choir – in marked contrast to the Baroque splendor of the basilica – harmonized the simple tones and melodies of the liturgy’ traditional Advent music. Flanked at the altar by Cardinals Roger Etchegaray, D. Simon Lourdusamy and Pio Laghi and Msgr. Robert Stern and joined by nine archbishops and bishops, many priests, religious and laity, the Cardinal spoke in his homily of the unique mission of the Pontifical Mission:

“‘The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the Lord, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.’ [Isaiah 41:17]

“There is no biblical text,” observed the Cardinal in Italian, “more appropriate for the occasion we celebrate today: the foundation of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

“The men and women [of the Pontifical Mission] whom we commemorate today,” he continued, “have demonstrated that humankind knows not only the deadliness of the abuse of power, but also the sweetness of assistance. They have contributed and continue to contribute to make the world a better place, or the journey toward the transfiguration of love when God will be all in all.”

After the liturgy, we gathered in a local trattoria for a cappuccino before the next great Rome event: a private audience with the Holy Father. The tempo of our group picked up as we passed the Swiss Guards – cloaked in their blue and gold uniforms designed by Michelangelo and standing by the Bronze Door – climbed the grand staircase and filed through the frescoed halls of the Apostolic Palace. For most of us, this was our first opportunity to meet personally with the man whom many consider the greatest leader, religious or secular, of the 20th century.

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Tags: Msgr. Stern Pope John Paul II Holy See Rome